The 2012 Census of Agriculture compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service revealed some shocking (and maybe not so shocking) truths: farmers and ranchers are getting older, fewer in numbers, and there aren't as many "new" producers entering the industry. While these facts may sound gloomy and disheartening, let's look closer at some of the information and, more importantly, how young producers like myself can contribute to their family's operations.
When looking at the farm facts below one wonders, what does this mean for you and your family operation? How does a young producer get involved? What can or should you do to improve upon the legacy of the family farm or ranch?
As a young producer, I have pondered these questions myself. Our family operation in Whitesboro, Texas, is the stereotypical small family farm as defined by the agriculture census. My great-great-grandfather homesteaded there more than 100 years ago. Since then, my family has raised everything from cotton and corn to peanuts and cattle. My grandparents both had jobs off the farm, as did my parents, as do I. While I'd like to think the farm has always been profitable, I know that is not the case; without outside income, our operation would not have survived. I'd like to reflect on my experiences as a young producer and share some observations that could hopefully aid and encourage other upstart farmers, ranchers and land managers.
Risk can come in a variety of forms: financial, occupational or reputational. Any time you put skin in the game, you're going to become more invested in the success and well-being of the operation. Be motivated and push the needle to accomplish your goal(s).
Proposing new ideas can be seen as challenging the status quo but, in reality, without the injection of new ideas, an operation can become stagnant and possibly miss out on an opportunity to become more efficient and/or productive. It can be something as small as how and what we feed cattle to exploring new marketing opportunities for our crop, such as direct marketing to consumers. However, you can learn a lot from listening. Seek out those who have been in the business, who have had success and failure, and learn from their experiences. That kind of education is free and real-world tested.
This goes hand-in-hand with my previous point. Sometimes being the silent observer is fine, but do not be timid about asking why things are done the way they are. Try to gain some perspective and history before you offer input or thought into why or how an operation could be doing something differently.
I'm very proud of the degrees on the wall of my office, but I'm equally proud of the experiences and lessons learned from others I have encountered and worked with in the field. I am convinced that formal education empowers a person to continue to learn after they graduate and enter the professional world. Who better to learn from than those already actively engaged and doing the work?
Social media is a great way to connect with people who we would otherwise never meet yet alone interact with. It is an easy way to stay abreast of current events and industry news, and to share information and ideas. It is important to promote our industry and heritage with photos, infographics, etc., but simply taking pretty pictures isn't enough. Be mindful of the opportunities you may have to promote agriculture and be confident enough to do so, whatever the venue or whoever the audience may be.
Change can be as drastic or subtle as you make it. As a small operator, my goal for our farm is to be as efficient as possible with our finances, natural resources and livestock. This past winter, my dad and I decided to change how we feed hay. Historically, we'd put hay rings around a round bale, knowing we were wasting a significant portion of the bale (and money). My exposure to current research and different management techniques proved that we could do better with little-to-no additional effort required. Once we began rolling the bales out instead of simply setting them down with a hay ring, we noticed a greater portion of the hay was consumed and less was wasted. This decreased how many bales we needed to purchase to feed through the winter. That money we saved from not buying hay could be reinvested in our pastures through fertilizer this spring. Small improvements stack up quick and can quickly change the landscape and character of an operation.
American agriculture has overcome many challenges and obstacles in the past, but I feel our greatest contest is yet to come. With increasing regulation, more competitive global markets, and a general population who continues to grow removed from and distrust modern agriculture, we as an industry must ensure our livelihood and rural heritage endure. It is easy to sit back and say, "Well, I can't do anything about it. I'm a little guy." National and state organizations are the collective voice of our industry. It is imperative to not only become a member but also be actively engaged in that organization, and promote its creed and mission.
Know your limits and when you need assistance. It is OK to admit you do not know something or your abilities aren't as advanced as those around you. More importantly, be the helping hand when you are called upon by others.
Some of my fondest memories growing up involve riding on the tractor and in the wagons during peanut harvest. I'll never forget the smell and sounds of harvest as a young boy (and the stomachache from eating too many fresh peanuts). My working relationship with my grandfather and dad has changed since then from shotgun rider to partner, and for that I am truly blessed and grateful. Now that I have a family of my own, I take every opportunity I have to take my daughters with me to check cattle, get on the tractor, fix fence, etc. The time spent together is irreplaceable; I know that because my mentors and role models took the time to take me along on similar chores. Take time to give back to younger generations; they will be the caretakers of the future we are all working to make a reality.
The future of agriculture in our great country is bright and full of opportunity for those willing to grasp it. As young farmers and ranchers, we are blessed with tools, technologies, techniques and information our predecessors could only dream about. Though we face challenges that previous generations did not, we are still in contest with some all too familiar ones. I am encouraged by the fact that so many still commit themselves to feeding and clothing their fellow man. It is a noble effort that is forgotten by so many.
The Census of Agriculture is conducted every five years. The 2017 survey will be released at the end of the year, and can be completed either online or by mail. We encourage every farmer, rancher and land manager to fill it out. For additional information, please visit agcensus.usda.gov.